metaphysical poets


  • In the opinion of one critic of the 1960s, defining the extent of the Baroque style in 17th-century English poetry “may even be said to have taken the place of the earlier
    discussion of the metaphysical”.

  • The poems written by John Milton while still at university are a case in point and include some that were among his earliest published work, well before their inclusion in
    his Poems of 1645.

  • Wordplay and wit[edit] “Europe supported by Africa and America”, William Blake, 1796 The way George Herbert and other English poets “torture one poor word ten thousand ways”,
    in Dryden’s phrase, finds its counterpart in a poem like “Constantijn Huygens’ Sondagh (Sunday) with its verbal variations on the word ‘sun’.

  • And there are several instances in which 17th-century poets used the word ‘metaphysical’ in their work, meaning that Samuel Johnson’s description has some foundation in the
    usage of the previous century.

  • [1] Probably the only writer before Dryden to speak of the new style of poetry was Drummond of Hawthornden, who in an undated letter from the 1630s made the charge that “some
    men of late, transformers of everything, consulted upon her reformation, and endeavoured to abstract her to metaphysical ideas and scholastical quiddities, denuding her of her own habits, and those ornaments with which she hath amused the
    world some thousand years”.

  • [3] Johnson was repeating the disapproval of earlier critics who upheld the rival canons of Augustan poetry, for though Johnson may have given the Metaphysical “school” the
    name by which it is now known, he was far from being the first to condemn 17th-century poetic usage of conceit and word-play.

  • The term Metaphysical poets was coined by the critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of 17th-century English poets whose work was characterised by the inventive use
    of conceits, and by a greater emphasis on the spoken rather than lyrical quality of their verse.

  • Stylistic echoes Long before it was so-named, the Metaphysical poetic approach was an available model for others outside the interlinking networks of 17th century writers,
    especially young men who had yet to settle for a particular voice.

  • They were a group of some fifteen young professionals with an interest in poetry, many of them poets themselves although, like Donne for much of his life, few of them published
    their work.

  • [35] In the poetry of Henry Vaughan, as in that of another of the late discoveries, Thomas Traherne, Neo-Platonic concepts played an important part and contributed to some
    striking poems dealing with the soul’s remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm and its spiritual influence.

  • A sense of community Johnson’s definition of the Metaphysical poets was that of a hostile critic looking back at the style of the previous century.

  • “[5] A further two decades later, a hostile view was expressed that emphasis on their importance had been an attempt by Eliot and his followers to impose a “high Anglican
    and royalist literary history” on 17th-century English poetry.

  • And the circumstance that Crashaw’s later life was also spent outside England contributed to making him, in the eyes of Mario Praz, “the greatest exponent of the Baroque style
    in any language”.

  • Platonic influence[edit] Ideas of Platonic love had earlier played their part in the love poetry of others, often to be ridiculed there, although Edward Herbert and Abraham
    Cowley took the theme of “Platonic Love” more seriously in their poems with that title.

  • It may be remembered also that at the time Milton composed these, the slightly younger John Cleveland was a fellow student at Christ’s College, Cambridge, on whom the influence
    of the Metaphysical style was more lasting.

  • Origin of the name In the chapter on Abraham Cowley in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Samuel Johnson refers to the beginning of the 17th century in
    which there “appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets”.

  • Though the poems were often cast in a suitably Metaphysical style, half were written by fellow clergymen, few of whom are remembered for their poetry.

  • [44] Pope also wrote his “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717) while still young, introducing into it a string of Metaphysical conceits in the lines beginning
    “Most souls, ’tis true, but peep out once an age” which in part echo a passage from Donne’s “Second Anniversary”.

  • Grierson noted in addition that the slightly older poet, Robert Southwell (who is included in Gardner’s anthology as a precursor), had learned from the antithetical, conceited
    style of Italian poetry and knew Spanish as well.

  • [45] By the time Pope wrote this, the vogue for the Metaphysical style was over and a new orthodoxy had taken its place, of which the rewriting of Donne’s satires was one

  • For one thing, Donne’s poetry had considerable influence on subsequent poets, who emulated his style.

  • He had friends within the Great Tew Circle but at the time of his elegy was working as a researcher for Henry Wotton, who intended writing a life of the poet.

  • Nor could Alexander Pope, yet his early poetry evidences an interest in his Metaphysical forebears.

  • Nevertheless, Johnson’s dismissal of the ‘school’ was still in the future and at the start of the 18th century allusions to their work struck an answering chord in readers.

  • [41] The several correspondences among the poems there are sometimes explained as the result of the book’s making a covert Royalist statement.

  • This was to look at the practice and self-definition of the circle of friends about Donne, who were the recipients of many of his verse letters.

  • Once the Metaphysical style was established, however, it was occasionally adopted by other and especially younger poets to fit appropriate circumstances.

  • The choice of style by the young Milton and the young Dryden can therefore be explained in part as contextual.

  • [2] Criticism The Augustans[edit] Johnson’s assessment of “metaphysical poetry” was not at all flattering: The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and, to show their
    learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and, very often, such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was
    so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables…

  • Given the lack of coherence as a movement, and the diversity of style among poets, it has been suggested that calling them Baroque poets after their era might be more useful.

  • And once the poetic style had been launched, its tone and approach remained available as a model for later writers who might not necessarily commit themselves so wholly to

  • As an example of the rhetorical way in which various forms of repetition accumulate in creating a tension, only relieved by their resolution at the end of the poem, Segel
    instances the English work of Henry King as well as Ernst Christoph Homburg’s in German and Jan Andrzej Morsztyn’s in Polish.

  • Johnson’s remark that “To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think” only echoed its recognition a century and a half before in the many tributes paid
    to Donne on his death.

  • [23] Crashaw is frequently cited by Harold Segel when typifying the characteristics of The Baroque Poem,[24] but he goes on to compare the work of several other Metaphysical
    poets to their counterparts in both Western and Eastern Europe.

  • In addition, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is given as a famous example of the use of hyperbole common to many other Metaphysical poets and typical of the Baroque style

  • The work of Edward Taylor, who is now counted as the outstanding English-language poet of North America, was only discovered in 1937.

  • [6] However, the term does isolate the English poets from those who shared similar stylistic traits in Europe and America.

  • [43] As a young man he began work on adapting Donne’s second satire, to which he had added the fourth satire too by 1735.

  • He had yet to enter university when he contributed a poem on the death of Henry Lord Hastings to the many other tributes published in Lachrymae Musarum (1649).

  • The great vogue for Donne passed with the passing of the Anglo-American experimental movement in modern poetry.

  • [33] Much of this display of wit hinges upon enduring literary conventions and is only distinguished as belonging to this or that school by the mode of treatment.

  • The title page of Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, 1650 A younger second generation was a close-knit group of courtiers, some of them with family or professional ties to
    Donne’s circle, who initially borrowed Donne’s manner to cultivate wit.

  • Eventually George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw, all of whom knew each other, took up the religious life and extended their formerly secular approach into this
    new area.

  • [38] The poem has been cited as manifesting “the extremes of the metaphysical style”,[39] but in this it sits well with others there that are like it: John Denham’s “Elegy
    on the death of Henry Lord Hastings”, for example,[40] or Marvell’s rather smoother “Upon the death of the Lord Hastings”.

  • Later it modulates into the thoughtful religious poems of the next generation with their exclamatory or conversational openings and their sense of the mind playing over the
    subject and examining it from all sides.

  • This does not necessarily imply that he intended “metaphysical” to be used in its true sense, in that he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden, who said of
    John Donne: He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and
    entertain them with the softnesses of love.


Works Cited

[‘Gardner, Helen (1957). Metaphysical Poets. Oxford University Press, London. ISBN 978-0140420388. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
2. ^ Bartleby
3. ^ Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, vol. 1 (1779)
4. ^ The Spectator no. 58 (11
May 1711), p. 69
5. ^ Alvarez, p. 11
6. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Colin Burrow, “Metaphysical poets (act. c. 1600–c. 1690)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 7 May 2012
7. ^ Harold B. Segel, The Baroque Poem:
a comparative survey, New York 1974, particularly the “Introduction”, pp. 3–14
8. ^ See Grierson’s introduction
9. ^ David Reid, The Metaphysical Poets, Routledge, 2014, p. 269
10. ^ Alvarez, “Donne’s Circle”, pp. 187–95
11. ^ Alvarez, ch.
6, “The game of wit and the corruption of the style”
12. ^ Elegies, p. 393
13. ^ Gardner pp. 22–24
14. ^ “Elegy for Doctor Donne”, Poetry Explorer
15. ^ “Grierson, poem 138. On the Death of Mr. Crashaw. Abraham Cowley. Metaphysical Lyrics
& Poems of the 17th c.”
16. ^ Izaac Walton, The Life of Henry Wotton, pp. 161–62
17. ^ Poems, by J.D. VVith elegies on the authors death.
18. ^ Ted-Larry Pebworth (2000). Literary circles and cultural communities in Renaissance England. University
of Missouri Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0826213174. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
19. ^ Grierson, p. xxxi)
20. ^ Grierson p. xx
21. ^ “Concettismo”. Oxford Reference.
22. ^ White, Helen C. “Southwell: Metaphysical and Baroque”, Modern Philology, Vol.
61, No. 3 (February 1964): 159–68.
23. ^ Alvarez, p. 92
24. ^ Segel, pp. 102–16
25. ^ Scroll down at the Hull University site
26. ^ “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”.
27. ^ The original nature, and immortality of the soul, section 2
28. ^ Astrophel
and Stella, Sonnet 7
29. ^ “Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Sonnet 127”.
30. ^ “Sonnet of Black Beauty”
31. ^ “Text analysis at Fareletteratura. Analisi del testo e Parafrasi: “Bella schiava” di Giovan Battista Marino -“. 22 July 2014.
32. ^ “Palabra
33. ^ Nick Jones, “Cosmetic Ontologies, Cosmetic Subversions: Articulating Black Beauty and Humanity in Luis de Góngora’s “En la fiesta del Santísimo Sacramento”, The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 15.1, 2015, abstract
34. ^
Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 5
35. ^ Sarah Hutton, “Platonism in some Metaphysical Poets”, in Platonism and the English Imagination, Cambridge University 1994, pp.
36. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica online
37. ^ Introduction to the poems at the John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth College
38. ^ The Poems of John Dryden, Vol. 3, pp. 5–8
39. ^ Isabel Rivers, “The making of a 17th century religious poet”,
in John Milton: Introductions, Cambridge University 1973, p. 93
40. ^ Text at Poem Hunter
41. ^ Text from the Adelaide University e-book
42. ^ The Poems of Andrew Marvell, Pearson Education 2003
43. ^ Felicity Rosslyn, Alexander Pope: A Literary
Life, New York 1990, pp. 17–20
44. ^ Howard D. Weinbrot, Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire, Princeton University 1982, pp. 299–307
45. ^ Maynard Mack, “Wit and Poetry and Pope” in Collected in Himself, University of Delaware
1982, Volume 1, pp. 38–40
2. A. Alvarez, The School of Donne, London 1961
3. “Elegies upon the Author” in Poems by J.D. with elegies of the author’s death, London 1633
4. Gardner, Helen, The Metaphysical Poets. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957)
5. Grierson,
Herbert J.C., Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Oxford, 1921
6. Johnson, Samuel: “The Life of Cowley” extracted from Lives of the Poets (London 1780)
7. Segel, Harold B., The Baroque Poem: a comparative survey, New York 1974

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